Morsefest is unlike any other music event I have ever attended. 2017 was the 4th year of Morsefest, and for each of the previous year’s something had prevented me from attending. I had been lucky enough to get the DVD’s from the first 2 years, and even had the chance to review 2015 for Shockwave. I had spoken to many people both online and in person who had attended, but it still alluded me. So, when I received the email the Shockwave had been approved to cover it this year, and I was FINALLY going to get to experience Morsefest live, I became downright giddy.
Let me give a quick overview of Morsefest for any one that has no clue what I am talking about. Morsefest was started in 2014 by Neal Morse in Cross Plains, TN (just outside of Nashville). It is a 2-day PROG filled festival type event held at New Life Fellowship Church. Each year Neal Morse chooses music from has vast catalogue and gives those lucky enough to attend a very special experience. Whether that is an album in its entirety, or a reunion of every member of Spock’s Beard, you know you are in for something big. There are VIP packages the include meet and greets, games, and dinners with the bands, which I was unable to attend but the stories are amazing.
For 2017, it had been announced that each night would be opened by former Spock’s Beard member Nick D’Virgilio but we were not told what he would be doing. Night one was set to bring us The Neal Morse Band performing Neal’s Testimony 2 album in its entirety along with some rare stuff that Neal was keeping to himself. Night two was going to be the Neal Morse Band’s Prog Epic The Similitude of a Dream.
In the weeks leading up to Labor Day weekend the excitement was everywhere I looked. The online forums were filled with returning guests making plans to meet up and the interwebs were buzzing with people trying to figure out what rare tracks Neal was planning for night one
Sept 1, 2017 – Night one
The energy in the church was electric. People from all over the world reuniting, catching up, or meeting for the first time and bonding over the universal language of music. I did not know many people but was immediately greeted and treated like a part of this loving international family. Hugs, high fives, and stories of the past year filled the room, along with some friendly banter about what everyone thought the secret songs may be. The lights went down and everyone took their seats in preparation for what would turn out to be an incredibly emotional night for all in attendance.
The evening began with the duo of Nick D’Virgilio and Stan Ausmus (long time Spock’s Beard contributor) giving the crowd an acoustic set that included songs from Octane, Nick’s solo stuff, Big Big Train, and of course Spock’s Beard. It was a fantastic way to start off MF2017.
The lights again went down and The Neal Morse Band, consisting of Neal Morse, Randy George, Eric Gillette, Bill Hubauer, and Mike Portnoy, took the stage. The stage lights came up and I was blown away by the lights and the three enormous screens that added to the feel of how big this event really was. The time had come to find out what Neal had up his super secretive sleeve. The set began with “Lifeline” and went straight into a 30-min epic (yes folks this is Prog and we like it) “So Many Roads.” The band then all took to the front of the stage for an acoustic version of “Supernatural” with Bill Hubauer taking the lead on a mandolin. The guys then got the audience involved with the Yes classic “I’ve seen All Good People.” The band returned their respective places on the stage and ended the set with yet another 30-min song “Seeds of Gold” that had the entire crowd on its feet at the end.
After a short break, and an outfit change, the NMB again took the stage, accompanied by a full choir, a string, and horn section, for what was to be one of the most moving nights of live music I have had the pleasure of witnessing. We were treated to Neal’s album Testimony 2, in its entirety. Testimony 2 is the emotional record of Neal’s faith journey from being on the road with Spock’s Beard to trusting the Lord had a plan for him that included spending more time at home with his growing family.
Though the entire album is very moving, there was not a dry eye in the room as Neal (also in tears) finished “Jayda,” a song written about his daughter’s recovery from a heart condition as a baby. Every person in attendance was on their feet as Jayda ran from backstage to embrace her father as he was crying at the end of the song.
At the end of the night the crowd slowly made their way outside knowing that they had all just been a part of something very special.
Sept 2, 2017 – Night two
Nick D’Virgilio once again started the night, but this time brought along his new band, UniKue. UniKue is a band that consists of 5 Ukulele players and Nick on drums. Now, I will admit when I first heard they would be playing Prog with Ukuleles, I had my reservations, but man was I wrong. Pulling off classics such as “Closer to the Heart” and an audience participation filled “Roundabout,” they were the perfect opener for a Prog filled evening.
The moment I had been so excited for was finally upon us. The NMB (again joined on-stage by the choir, string, and horn sections) were about to perform their double concept Prog Extravaganza The Similitude of a Dream. I had seen them in Feb. in Los Angeles for their tour in support of this album, and could not wait to see it again in this amazing setting, surrounded by all these fellow Prog enthusiasts.
The band was on fire! Once they started the show they did not even stop to take a moment to speak to the crowd until after the entire first set. This set was the entire first disc (if you happened to get the physical CD) from start to finish and included “City of Destruction,” Makes No Sense,” “Back to the City,” and one of my faves “The Ways of the Fool.”
After a short break, the band came back out with a bang starting the second set with “Slave to Your Mind.” As with the rest of the tour, “Sloth” had Stuffy (a stuffed sloth) hanging from Randy’s bass, and Neal in a Sloth mask (as well as some in the audience) crawling on the stage, singing slowly as if in character. The end of the set, Broken Sky/Long Day (reprise), had the entire room out of their seats and in awe of the incredible show they were witnessing.
The encore consisted of “Author of Confussion,” “Agenda,” and one of my favorites from the NMB’s previous album, The Grand Experiment, “the Call.” In my opinion, the night could not have ended any better. I cannot express enough how incredibly talented Neal, Randy, Eric, Bill, and Mike are. The harmonies and pure musicianship of this band is stellar.
After a few pics with my new friends, lots of hugs, and some exchanges of information, it was time to admit to ourselves that this EPIC event that showed Prog at its finest was over. Now comes the hard part of waiting until next year to do it all again.